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4 Connecticut officers charged with depriving Latinos of rights

January 24, 2012 |  9:45 am

Lwgy9bpdFour police officers from East Haven, Conn., were arrested Tuesday morning on federal charges that they used their authority as cops to harass, intimidate and deprive Latinos of their rights, according to federal officials.

Federal authorities began investigating East Haven police in 2009 after local activists complained that police had abused Latinos. Last month, the Department of Justice released its findings, saying there was a pattern of discrimination at the Police Department.

Officers Dennis Spaulding, David Cari and Jason Zullo and Sgt. John Miller, president of the police union, were charged with conspiracy, deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice in a federal indictment released Tuesday morning. The three officers worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, often supervised by Miller.

The indictment alleges that the group, “acting under the color of law did knowingly and willfully conspire and agree together and with each other” ... “to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate members of the East Haven community in the free exercise and enjoyment of rights.”

The four were arrested Tuesday and are expected to appear in federal court later in the day, federal officials said. Speaking before the court, lawyers for the group denied the charges and said their clients are excellent officers.

Among the specific acts cited as part of the conspiracy are the assault of individuals while they were handcuffed and unreasonable searches and seizures. In addition, the quartet is accused of violating the rights of Latinos not to be arrested and detained without probable cause. Miller repeatedly slapped a man handcuffed in his car, and Spaulding threw a man to the ground and kicked him while he was handcuffed, according to the indictment.

The indictment also accuses unnamed union leaders of trying to block misconduct investigations.

Mayor Joseph Maturo, who took office Nov. 19, said he backed his police. “I stand behind the Police Department,” he told the Associated Press. “We have a great Police Department.”

In 2009, the Rev. James Manship was working to document police harassment of Latino businessmen when he was arrested and jailed while videotaping police during an arrest. He was later released but complained to the Justice Department, which opened an investigation.

The complaint also accuses some officers of assaulting Latinos in police cars and at the station. The city of East Haven, the Police Department and 20 officers are defendants in a civil lawsuit, alleging discrimination and ethnic profiling.

The federal investigation in East Haven is one of 17 under way around the country, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department said Tuesday.

The Justice Department examined East Haven records from Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2010. It said there was a pattern of discrimination and of poor supervision.

For example, it found that about 40% of all traffic stops by one officer involved Latinos. Overall, the department stopped Latinos at a rate of 19.9%, though the town population of Latino drivers was about 8.3% and rises only to as much as 15.5% when the surrounding areas are included.

The East Haven Police Department has come under scrutiny previously. In 2003, a federal jury ruled that a white officer used excessive force and violated the rights of a black man he fatally shot after a chase.

East Haven is about 70 miles northeast of New York City. According to the 2010 census, it has about 30,000 people and is more than 88% white. About 10.3% of the people identify themselves as Latino, up from 4.4% in the 2000 census. The Police Department has about 50 uniformed officers.

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 -- Michael Muskal

Photo: Police Chief Leonard Gallo talks with reporters in 2006 at the East Haven, Conn., police station. Four of his officers face federal charges for acting to deprive Latinos of their rights. Credit: Melanie Stengel /The New Haven Register

 

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